Winter Jazzfest, now in its 16th year, showcases the staggering diversity of the music scene in New York. But its name seemed at first like an across-the-board misnomer—“Winter?” Though the calendar synced up, the days were warm and even the nights were balmy. “Jazz” was also up for grabs. Of the six sets I caught, only one would have fit neatly into that category. Still, while several other noted jazz festivals have tended toward booking bloated mainstream acts to sell tickets, WJF remains admirably committed to a broadly encompassing program, with a strong emphasis on quality. Finally, “Fest.” New York hosts lots of these, from the White Lights Festival to Mostly Mozart, but they rarely seem especially festive, more a series of bookings around town that might well have taken place without that rubric. Even without a central area to gather around or other traditional tropes, WJF did its part to make the proceedings fun, urging festival-goers to attend multiple shows at the various downtown venues. Rushing around from one to another is the local version of settling in for the ride.
Though I’m a New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival devotee (for many, that one owns the nickname Jazzfest) and a longtime New York City resident, this was my first WJF, and I took to it quickly. I attended two of the music marathon nights, starting with a show by Ikebe Shakedown at Mercury Lounge. This seven-piece instrumental band plays cinematic R&B and funk that was described by John Schaefer as “the perfect music for a Quentin Tarantino movie that hasn’t been made yet.” The group embraces the crate-digger aesthetic popularized by The Budos Band and some of their labelmates at Daptone Records. What keeps these projects fresh is the absolute commitment of their members to re-invigorating the sound of beloved older recordings, right down to the slightly woozy drag of the tempos. They moved through cuts from their new Kings Left Behind recording, many of them honed on the larger festival Bonnaroo/Austin City Limits circuit, giving my own entry into this world a rousing send-off.
Along with the wide-ranging ambitions of the festival come the inevitable changes of plan. The women-led Afrobeat collective Kokoroko had to cancel because of visa problems, and in their place was something altogether different: the Revival Resistance Chorus, a group of about 25 women, all dressed in white and singing traditional and newly written protest music. I had seen this ensemble previously at Central Park Summerstage, where they opened for and then accompanied the mighty Angelique Kidjo, and their involving, dynamic presence moved the crowd on both occasions. One of the standouts was Treya Lam, a solo artist and ensemble member, whose powerful voice raised the roof. The central message was one of solidarity and inclusivity, and as the group wound its way, singing, through the crowd at SOB’s, spirits lightened.
Capping the first night there was Ethiopian keyboard player and accordionist Hailu Mergia. He was a major figure in the music scene of that country in the 1970s and ’80s, performing with the influential Walias Band and releasing several solo albums. After that, he left the scene and was driving a cab in Washington, D.C. for nearly twenty years, before his music was rediscovered in 2013 by Brian Shimkovitz of the Awesome Tapes from Africa label. Besides re-releasing his older work, Shimkovitz recorded and released new material that sparkles. At the festival, Mergia—playing in a trio format—overcame some early sound problems and found his groove. His approach splits the difference between four-on-the-floor funk and the overlapping, cyclical riffs of traditional Ethio-Jazz. The net effect can be hypnotic. Like the keyboardist Horace Silver, he tends to work within a very narrow chromatic range, but digs down deeply into patterns, working and reworking them. Along with other pioneers of the scene in Addis Ababa like Mulate Astatke, Mergia is bringing this elegant music back into circulation, and we are all richer for it.
My second night began with a set by The Cookers at Subculture, a straight-ahead seven-piece group whose name derives from an incendiary live album by Freddie Hubbard. This is a pretty spectacular ensemble, with the likes of Billy Harper on tenor sax, Cecil McBee on bass, and George Cables on piano, though the regular drummer, the great Billy Hart, was off for the night. Their tight, harmonically rich arrangements call to mind bands like Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, and they bring a gravitas to everything they play. There are fewer and fewer of these bands that tie into the mainstream jazz tradition with members who were around when the basic language of the form was coming into existence. It is a welcome sight to see these players with decades of experience performing their own compositions with drive and commitment.
Bassist Bill Laswell, another longtime presence on the scene and a pioneer of a particular New York sound that once went by the name “No Wave,” called his configuration of players Revelator. This seemed to be a nod to the gospel blues song “John the Revelator,” which has been performed by many but is indelibly marked by a seminal Blind Willie Johnson recording of it. That recording evokes a dark grind animated by high-flown lyrics from the Book of Revelations. This band lived up to the implicit challenge of that mesmerizing song. Laswell always provides a wide, expansive sound that is absolutely sure in its intent, an unshakable dub bottom. Multi-instrumentalist Peter Apfelbaum and guitarist Will Bernard played unexpected, effects-laden lines that fanned out in every direction. Here the big surprise was the guest drummer Don McKenzie, who filled in for an ailing Aaron Johnston and blazed a huge trail with inventive, passionate playing.
The final set I caught was by Donny McCaslin, the tenor sax player who collaborated with David Bowie on the singer’s final album, Blackstar. The last switch-up was that the scheduled feature performer, longtime Bowie bassist Gail Ann Dorsey, never showed, so the promise of their interpretation of this material didn’t come to pass. Still, McCaslin is an accomplished and intense performer, and his particular form of art-rock-meets-jazz captivated the crowd.
With its scores of stages already filled with superb musicians every night, does New York need a Jazzfest? I’d say a strong yes. Besides offering a comparatively cheap way to see a ton of great music, it does link disparate musicians and their audiences in a larger enterprise. The festival asks you to look at the colossus of music in the city and consider its incredible range and diversity. As the poet Delmore Schwartz wrote, “It is the city consciousness which sees and says: More / More and more. Always more.” Or as the sign on the late, lamented Lone Star Café used to read: “Too Much Ain’t Enough.”